Early
Thomas H. Luxon. Literal Figures Puritan Allegory & the Reformation Crisis in Representation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. xii+256pp. ISBN 0226497852 Cloth.
David Gay
University of Alberta
dgay@pop.srv.ualberta.ca

Gay, David. "Review of Literal Figures Puritan Allegory & the Reformation Crisis in Representation." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 6.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_gay1.html>.

  1. Reformers rejected the Catholic practice of allegorical interpretation and insisted on the primacy of the literal sense of scripture. Why, then, would a Puritan like Bunyan write allegory at all? This fascinating question evades the searching scrutiny to which Thomas Luxon subjects it. As his title suggests, Luxon exposes tense contradictions at the core of Protestant hermeneutics. Puritanism, he argues, could not escape allegorical interpretation even in its attempt to affirm typology as the plane of the historically real because the maintenance of what Luxon calls Protestantism's "two-world ontology," based on the opposition of fiction and reality, depends upon the perpetual allegorizing of non-Christian "others." In the course of this well-argued analysis, Luxon identifies certain problems in Protestant allegory and hermeneutics particularly as they are practiced by Bunyan.

  2. Luxon begins by historicizing his subject in the millenarian ferment of the seventeenth-century. The appearance of "pseudo-Christs," or persons claiming literally to be Christ, presents striking confrontations between religious radicals and authorities in ways that reveal "Protestantism's anxieties over symbolic modes of thought" (24). The case of James Nayler, punished with the savage literalism of branding for re-enacting Christ's entry into Jerusalem, is perhaps the most famous example. Cases involving women are more important to Luxon's argument because they emphasize relations between carnal birth and spiritual rebirth as a trope in Pauline theology. The treatment of women and birth as mere figures subsumed in a male spiritual telos and of Jews as incomplete prefigurations of a Christian reality are paradigmatic of the negative impact Luxon finds in Protestantism's relentless allegorizing of the "other".

  3. Luxon challenges the tendency of modern criticism to assimilate the Reformation distinction between allegory and typology. Specifically, he challenges the idea that typology can be distinguished from allegory because the former deals with "historically real" persons and events. For Luxon, this claim to historical reality amounts to a euphemistic disguising of the Puritan commitment to allegorical modes of thought. The affirmation of typology may appear consistent with Puritanism's iconoclastic ideals, but any treatment of history as mere prefiguration relegates it to the status of a pseudo-reality. Ironically, Luxon argues, typology treats history "as God's fictional representation" of "something else that lies outside of history" (54), and is thus allegorical. He then analyzes Genesis narratives in a midrashic framework, sharing the conviction of other critics that the Old Testament narrative is more open to paradox, mystery, and diverse interpretations and less concerned to assimilate otherness than its Christian successors.

  4. The final two chapters present important theoretical insights into what Luxon terms Bunyan's "anti-hermeneutics of experience." Situating Bunyan between his Quaker opponent Edward Burrough, with his emphasis on silence and inner light, and state authority as portrayed in Sir John Kelynge, who presided at Bunyan's hearing, Luxon considers Bunyan's concept of praying in the spirit, partly a political stance designed to resist the state-imposed script of the Book of Common Prayer, to be complicated by its desire to move from the representational medium of language to an experience of speaking in the spirit figured as spiritual rebirth. In an insightful critique of Stanley Fish's treatment of Pilgrim's Progress as a "self-consuming artifact," Luxon finds analogous traits between Bunyan's anti-hermeneutics of experience and Fish's critical approach with its emphasis on the reader's experience of the text. Luxon's readings of both parts of the Pilgrim's Progress call further attention to the "metaphysics of insiders and outsiders" (189) that he sees as germane to both allegory and typology. Allegory projects the corruptions of the insider onto the outsider who then may be anathematized. Luxon consistently probes this metaphysics and its consequences in Bunyan's time and suggests its implications for our own.

  5. Luxon's book is strongly polemical in its concern for the intolerance that has often resulted from literalist hermeneutics. I share his concerns, but I would also acknowledge the potentially visionary side of typology, particularly as it afforded writers a framework for critical reflection on historical commitment and revolutionary action in the context of political defeat and disconfirmed or abandoned millenarian expectations. Luxon exposes certain metaphysical paradoxes in allegory's "two-world ontology," but allegory could also perform the political work of identifying and sustaining a persecuted community. Even so, Luxon has issued an important theoretical challenge to critical assumptions about the notion of the "real" in typology and allegory. His logical, scholarly, and uncompromising argument will stimulate and inform all students of Bunyan and the seventeenth century.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.


1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996)